Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Friday, December 02, 2005

The Disappearing Bishops 

This week's National Catholic Reporter ('I read it so you don't have to!') includes two articles criticizing the Bishops' Conference, which are notable in their own way. One is a lead editorial entitled 'The Disappearing Bishops', which bemoans the readily observeable fact that the U.S. bishops' desire to lead the charge into complex and divisive political issues has waned in recent days:

The U.S. bishops, once collectively a voice to be reckoned with in the corridors of U.S. power and in the ornate halls of the Vatican, are withdrawing from the national stage and from any meaningful engagement with Rome.

Bishops once bristled at the prospect of becoming, in their words, branch managers or errand boys. They are now only too willing to take orders and leave the questions to others.

What we witnessed in Washington this month during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the sadder and maybe one of the final chapters in the devolution of the U.S. bishops as a national body. Rome has been after the bishops for years to diminish the significance of the conference, and they have gradually capitulated, snuffing out the once noteworthy contribution of lay experts and signaling their intent to avoid the burning issues of the day. More deliberately than ever they are turning inward to problems of no interest to the wider world and of little interest to most of the faithful from whom they continue to grow distant.

Another analysis by Washington journalist Joe Feuerherd, entitled "Bishops Scale Back Conference", rings the same tone, this time in reference to the recent annual meeting of the Episcopal Conference:

Approximately 300 U.S. bishops met for four days just blocks from the nation's capital -- and few outside ecclesiastical circles noticed. Which was part of the plan.

Of the 10 items up for debate and vote at the truncated public sessions of the Nov. 14-17 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, eight dealt with intrachurch issues . . . Just two items addressed broader concerns: a statement reiterating the bishops' opposition to the death penalty and a resolution of support for a day of 'remembrance and prayer for mariners and people of the sea.' Both won hearty endorsement.

The low-key approach to the bishops' gatherings -- limiting their collective statements on hot-button issues with political overtones and restricting public access to their deliberations -- is part of an evolving strategy likely to be even more pronounced in years to come. Numerous bishops have indicated a desire to hold more meetings outside public view. And a strategic planning document drafted by a committee chaired by Pittsburg Bishop Donald Wuerl called for the body to "focus on a more limited range of responsibilities and activities in the future."

I've addressed the bishops' desire to return to so-called 'ad intra' issues in an extended manner before, drawing on Archbishop Timothy Dolan's First Things article this April. Bottom line is that the bishops have seen the more urgent priority of doing their own housecleaning before they develop a political strategy. With plummeting mass attendance, pitiful adult catechetical formation, a vocations crunch, not to mention the sexual abuse crisis, there is more than enough work to do at home. Weighing into convoluted economic and political questions, so fashionable in the eighties, has gone out of fashion. May it remain so. The bishops have not disappeared, nor has their influence waned. They have simply come into their own.

# posted by Jamie : 1:12 PM


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Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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